Executive Director of the international free expression agency Article 19 West
Africa offices in Dakar, Mrs. Jagne-Senghore has played a pivotal role in
expanding the democratic space in both The Gambia and Senegal. She is a typical
SeneGambian – born to a Senegalese father and Gambian mum, educated and brought
up in Banjul and Dakar, married to a Gambian and living in Dakar where she has
become a household name when it comes to human rights and free expression.
Her work is beyond continental Africa to the United Nations and the world at large. She wore the activist cap, the diplomatic cap, the journalism cap and the humanitarian cap – just ask the political refugees who were based in Dakar – Fatou resisted Yahya Jammeh, etched alliances of human rights groups to confront every unlawful action of Yahya Jammeh in The Gambia, in Dakar and throughout Africa. In this interview with journalist Sanna Camara, they spoke about issues of the transition and the work of her organisation in The Gambia.
Ques: How does it feel to be in New Gambia participating in the African Commission’s 61st Ordinary Session without the usual tense security concerns, among other issues?
Ans: The feeling is mostly of harmony and everyone is breathing air of freedom, and a high representation from government across the board, and looking also from the past. I feel relieved as a human rights activist and defender who worked for the past 18 years with the African Commission focusing on The Gambia and other countries. Today, I feel that the fight was worth it.
Adama barrow and a high powered delegation graced the opening of the session. You must have felt some pride as a Gambian and human rights activist….?
We know it was very difficult fight but to see Gambia today back to where it belongs as the host of the African Commission, coming to face the delegates and reiterate its commitments to human rights, supporting the work of the Commission and showing them that the Commission and the human rights community can count on the country is really a great step. What we have seen at the opening of this year’s ordinary session was really encouraging. Of course, we now have to move from commitments to implementing all the critical areas where the government makes long promises, vis-à-vis the African Commission…
…so what should be the next step after the storm of change has settled?
Just to ensure that the new found freedom and the democratic space is strengthened and consolidated with new policies and instituting oversight mechanisms which would help Gambians to fully exercise their democratic rights and all their fundamental human rights that was denied them for over two decades.
The pledges from President Barrow to work hard in improving the human rights and good governance situations in the country may be considered high sounding by some people. But are these achievable under the transition government?
I think it’s achievable. The commitment is coming from the highest level and we have seen some steps already. As we speak, for example, our organisation is working with government, namely the Ministries of Information and Justice, to really assist and make progress in the reform of laws and policies that are governing the freedom of expression landscape. This is priority area for the government. The president has reiterated during his state of the nation address and repeated these yesterday at the opening ceremony of the commission, that media laws and freedom of expression are central to the rest of other freedoms.
We also know that these rights have been the most violated during the 22 years of the past regime. So it is a priority and we think that the commitment of the government is commendable and we all have to work together and ensure that we have a good Freedom of Information law that will ensure that all Gambians are closer to their government, to have access to information that is of interest to the public and also for the government to be more accountable and more open to the public, allow free flow of information, etc.
One of the key issues of the transition process is the regulatory bodies and their independence. What do you think should be the reform agenda for such bodies?
The most important of the reforms is the independence of the regulatory bodies. We know that other areas of the work is also to repeal all the draconian media laws that inhibit free speech and all other laws that unduly restrict free expression and enacted by the last regime such as laws restricting internet rights, the criminal code, among others.
We also are looking forward to supporting government to really transform state broadcaster into a truly public service broadcaster whereby all citizens will have access. State broadcaster should be opened to national interests. We have already seen GRTS opening up and it is formidable to see it allowing divergent views and accessed by all the opposition and civil society groups. That has never happened. We need to consolidate that through policies and laws that would help the broadcaster reposition itself in the national landscape. The other bit to that is to allow independent regulation that allows citizens to own their broadcaster.
Re-branding the country as the human rights capital of Africa has become the new slogan for civil society and government. What do you think of this?
We are hoping that with the support of everybody, especially the media and the public at large, we can together re-brand the Gambia whose reputation has been tarnished over the years, not only to give back the hopes we all need in Africa but also to really, really come back to where we belong as capital of human rights in Africa. This is the birthplace of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the headquarters of the prime body which is the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. The commission was even discredited all these years because of the Gambia’s human rights records. We believe that we can have a new start. That is one of the things that this change is presenting us.
Your organisation has helped to recruit an advisor to the Ministry of Information. What directions will her work at the Ministry going to focus on?
What we have done after the change is to assess quickly with our partners the needs – the two things we are currently doing based also on our past records of almost two decades of work (our first report was in 1998 and the media commission bill that followed, closure of Citizen FM then, etc.) – Is to work in those areas such as support to the Gambia Press Union and other partners to progressively strengthen their capacity on human rights and their resilience.
When it comes to the media, how would your organisation collaborate in managing the change in the New Gambia? Has your support in the past proven any positive impacts? What lessons can we learn here?
For a while, we have realized that many journalists, given the harsh conditions in the country, were leaving despite the trainings and support we rendered. Most of the senior journalists left the country under Jammeh. So we initiated another programme called Holistic Protection, which was also trying to support people find safe haven when the situation was very harsh in the country. People whose lives were at risk were given temporal relief in Senegal, where our regional office was based. This also helped develop new skills for some of the journalists who were there network with their peers, network with other organisations… I think if you build on all those possibilities and opportunities, plus all those journalists who are in different parts of the world coming back and supporting all the initiatives we see today in the country such as the School of Journalism, I think we can strengthen and rebuild the profession.
So these are areas we would contribute. Of course, there are organisations such as the Press Union who will be leading those areas, and we will continue to offer our support. However, our own area of support will really be to help in the reform – which Article 19 is a leading organisation in terms of laws and policies and we have more than 30 years’ experience this year – to really help shape policies with the actors to ensure that we use the opportunity of the transition to get the best models possible. A case that we are very happy at is the Tunisia case. We have worked quite a lot to make sure they’ve got good access to information law, have an independent regulator and the existence of transformation of other policies including very, very progressive provisions in their Constitution.
How will all these experiences help support the country’s transition process?
We think that it is important to support through technical assistance. We know that there are a lot of Gambians with great experiences around the world. We believe that we can also tap into that expertise hence the choice of the Minister to get an adviser was supported by us as a good choice. When the minister through our partnership, decided to go that way, we also contributed to supporting that to be materialized.
This will help link up all the actors because the person [Ndey Tapha Sosseh] knows all the actors, she has been working in the media, and been working regionally. She is capable of bringing expertise that would help all of us to network further and expedite the most important aspect of that work. Of course, we are already working in The Gambia. We hired a representative who will be working through our sister organisation, the Institute for Human Rights Development, and who will also work on a number of projects to really support the transition. The official will also work with our traditional partners, and identify new areas where we feel as an organisation from the ground, that we can make an impact. We are here to add value; we are here also to strengthen work that we have done over the years, we are here to work with key actors.
So overall, this change is a good one for all?
For me as a Gambian, this is a good opportunity to come and give back. We have fought together to ensure we move away from the repression. I think it is now time to reconstruct, which is why we are looking at practical areas, concrete things that we can do to move the country. We are committed and personally, I am also committed to this. That is why we invested all this time on The Gambia; we are continuing to do that but with the help of everybody and ourselves, the media, Gambia will be able to shine when it comes to fundamental freedoms.
Thank you, Fatou, for talking to me.
You welcome, Sanna. I am happy to see you in New Gambia.